MentorBuilt exclusive: Head Referee Digest revealed

On Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019, FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Director Frank Merrick alluded to the existence of some official but undisclosed guidance for key event personnel.  In his blog post, which was primarily intended as an apology for harsh and misguided enforcement of rule G20 during the weekend's competitions, Merrick indicated that two of these guidances were provided to Head Referees during the events.


This came as a shock to many.  FRC participants generally operate with the understanding that just reading the official rules-- and the biweekly rule changes, and the Question & Answer system-- is sufficient to understand how matches will be refereed.

In a later comment, Merrick clarified the nature of these secret guidances.  MentorBuilt notes that this comment is the first public acknowledgement of a set of documents which provide clarifying gameplay information to key volunteers (some of whom also participate on FRC teams), but not to the FRC community at large.

Almost every week, a digest is sent to Head Referees. The intent of the digest is to help Head Refs keep current on Team Updates, interpretations, and things being seen in the field. It's also a way for Head Refs to get answers to their questions, similar to the Q&A for teams. It's a tool we use to help encourage consistency between events. With over 100 head referees this year, we need some way to communicate like this.

The intent of the digest is not to change rules, but provide clarity. The particular digest sent mid-last week created more of a change of interpretation of rules at events than was intended. The digest was amended Saturday, and the key guidance in that digest was incorporated in the team update released Tuesday.

Digests are not shared with teams because we want to have a way for Head Refs to ask and get answers to questions confidentially. These questions sometimes are based on actual occurrences at earlier events, that may be identifiable by the teams involved or others at the event. This could be unfair to the teams involved, or the ref crew that made a decision based on what they saw and their interpretation of the rules at the time. Also, we want Head Refs to feel free to ask any question they want, without concern about how the question may look if the digest was public. Digests are also not shared with teams because we don't want to create yet another place that teams feel they need to go to get rules. Only the rules are the rules. They are supplemented by the Q&A to add clarity in certain cases. Comments in the digest are not intended to be rules, but to provide guidance to volunteers with particular responsibilities.

In the case of the G20 issue last week, this system failed. The digest ended up giving direction that was more like a rule, and I'm sorry about that. As noted above, we will be looking at our communication system with referees to improve this.

Also, this week, Head Refs will be addressing G20 during the driver meetings at events. Additionally, our intent is, going forward, that any information that does not reach the level that requires a manual change that would be communicated in a Team Update will be included in driver meetings.


As Merrick explains, these Head Referee digests are a different publication than the twice-weekly public rules updates available to the common FRC public.

Through our exhaustive investigation, MentorBuilt has gained access to an example Head Referee Digest.  While MentorBuilt does not have direct access to the most recent digest, or any that have been released in the Destination Deep Space season, our investigation suggests that this 2018 Head Ref Digest #3 is comparable to the one discussed in the FRC blog post.

MentorBuilt investigators have broken down the elements of this document to help illuminate the types of direction provided in them.

View the full document

Key lessons from past week
The document is divided into three sections across three pages.  The first section outlines various points that were relevant to gameplay in the previous week, and gives corrective inputs intended to improve play-calling based on this recent experience.


While we were unable to dig up any evidence of public strife over the interpretations of G18 before or after this rules update, we were reminded of controversies surrounding the interpretations of this "key lesson" regarding G22. At a number of events, the interpretation of G22 swung far away from the previous two weeks.

Procedural updates
The most interesting portion of this document comes in the second section.


These two updates, provided to head referees by the Director of FRC, are rather straightforward.  However, the timing of these changes is highly conspicuous.  MentorBuilt's investigation reveals that Head Referees were provided clear guidance on an evolving rule a week before teams were aware of it.

The digest indicates a likely update to the game manual, to come "next week."  However, the referees are given no instruction to delay the subtle change to their play-calling until the manual is publicly updated.  Therefore, although referees were conscious of it, teams competing at Week 3 events in 2018 were unaware of an evolution of these two rules until after their competitions were over.

Timeline of changes:

  • Tuesday, March 13, 2018 - Team Update 17 released with no changes to the game manual
  • Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - Head Referee Digest #3 released to Head Referees
  • March 15-18, 2018 - Week 3 events
  • Tuesday, March 20, 2018 - Team Update 18 released, with these changes now made official

Query System Responses
The third section contains a Q&A between credentialed head referees and the respondents in charge of handling Head Referees (assuming the Head referee on the GDC, Aidan Browne). While largely mundane, it gives insight into rules and guidance that head referees may difficult to interpret and should subjected to longer, more thoughtful discussion at the start of events in drivers meetings.


MentorBuilt investigators find that the 2018 digest provides explicit answers to the kinds of questions asked by teams in the Q&A.  In doing so, the document establishes a set of secret rule interpretations which teams do not have access to, unless they can cleverly extract this information using the methods available to them: pose a perfectly-worded question to the Head Referee during the drivers' meeting or in the question box during the event, or contrive a situation during actual gameplay which will cause the referees to reveal the interpretation.  In our companion article Using the Drivers' Meeting to discover secret rule interpretations, we discuss some techniques that teams might use to compete on this new information battlefield.

In either case, to solicit these new and necessary details about how plays will be called, teams are now put into the uncomfortable (and for most, impossible) position of seeking out information they know is private.

MentorBuilt advocates for either public release, or elimination, of these weekly Head Referee Digests in future FRC seasons.

Key volunteers wishing to anonymously submit copies of their weekly digests are invited to email us at editors@MentorBuilt.com.

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